What Are Heirloom Seeds?

Handful of SeedHeirloom seeds, heirloom vegetables and heirloom gardening are becoming increasingly popular today. Many people are turning or returning to home gardening for a variety of reasons, and heirloom seeds figure prominently. Some of these include an interest in fresh, local and healthy foods, others need to stretch the family food budget, some need additional exercise – preferably outdoors, and still others are searching for the lost flavors of the family garden when they were growing up.

All of this interest has created some confusion as to what an heirloom seed truly is. Some think that the term “heirloom” is the same as “organic”. Other folks think that anything that is not organic or heirloom means that it is GMO. To make matters worse, some larger seed companies sell both heirloom and hybrid seeds that are certified organic, further confusing the matter.

Let’s take a look at a few definitions so we can better understand what an heirloom seed is compared to a hybrid or genetically modified seed.

An heirloom is anything of value (though not necessarily economic) to a person, family or group passed down from one generation to other. Examples are furniture, China, silver or seeds. An heirloom is generally considered something worth passing down. An heirloom seed, therefore, is seed from a plant that has been passed from one generation to another, carefully grown and saved because it is considered valuable. The value could lie in its flavor, productivity, hardiness or adaptability. Many heirlooms have been grown, saved and passed down for more than 100 years. Some have history reaching back 300 years or more. To have been saved and preserved for so long, these seed varieties have shown their value to many people and families for an extremely long time.

Most heirlooms have been saved and selected because they have the best flavor and production in home and small market gardens. We get the benefit of this long development cycle, as only the best producing, most flavorful, most memorable and most dependable varieties have made the selection throughout the years. Delicate, weak or fickle varieties are no longer with us.

Open-pollinated is another term sometimes used interchangeably with heirloom. They do not mean the same thing, as an open pollinated seed is simply a variety where the seed can be harvested from the plant, saved, replanted, and the same variety will re grow year after year. This is how we have the heirloom varieties that we have today is because they are open-pollinated. All heirloom seeds are open pollinated, but not all open pollinated seeds are heirloom, as there are new open pollinated varieties being introduced that are obviously not old enough to be considered heirlooms. An example of this is the Oregon Spring tomato developed by Dr. Baggett, Oregon State University through traditional plant breeding for early germination and productivity in the cool Oregon spring.

Organic certification is the process of certifying a crop grown to a strict uniform set of standards. The certification process includes inspections of farm fields and processing facilities, detailed record keeping and periodic testing of soil and water to ensure that growers and handlers are meeting the standards which have been set. The USDA sets the standards, and the criteria for meeting those standards. The certifying agency such as Oregon Tilth, CCOF, QAI and OCAI verifies that the grower is meeting the standards set by the USDA. In short, “organic” means only that a crop was grown to a specific set of standards.

A hybrid seed is produced by artificially cross pollinating two genetically different plants of the same species, such as two different tomatoes or two varieties of corn. The cross pollination is done by hand, and a seed that is saved will not grow true to either parent. Thus the farmer or gardener has no choice but to purchase new seed each year. Hybrids are typically bred for commercial use and profit to change the characteristic of the resulting plants, such as higher yield, greater uniformity, more even ripening, improved color and disease resistance. Flavor has only recently begun to be addressed when selecting characteristics for new hybrids.

Hybrids originated in the 1920s and 1930s for small local commercial growers who shipped their produce less than 50 miles to market, and needed more consistent production for a steady supply of fresh produce to the markets. Taste and freshness were still important than, as many people living in the city were recent transplants from the country, and still remembered what fresh produce tasted like. This is completely different from the hybrids of today with the selected characteristics that have resulted in the iconic colorful yet flavorless supermarket tomato that looks and tastes the same year round.

Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO seed have been altered using DNA from completely different species and organisms to give different traits such as resistance to herbicides and acceptance of chemical fertilizers. Some GMO corn, for instance, manufactures its own herbicide in its root structure. Some DNA donors have come from fish, frogs and bacteria. The major crops that are genetically modified are corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat. Sugar beets and alfalfa have recently been deregulated, and potatoes are being studied. Most common garden vegetables are not yet genetically modified simply because the financial return in the market is not present yet.

Two of the better known benefits of heirloom seed include adaptability and flavor. Some varieties of heirloom tomato have been known to adapt to a specific location within as little as 2 to 3 growing seasons, showing better vigor, better production, better flavor and increase disease resistance. This is a result of saving the seed and replanting it year to year. Many people come to heirlooms in search of flavors that they experienced as a child. One of the leading characteristics of heirloom varieties is defined by the depth of flavor that they produce. This single characteristic has been one of the major reasons for the preservation of specific varieties over great spans of time. This is probably one of the biggest reasons for the resurgence of heirlooms in home gardens in the past 10 years, as once people experience the amazing range and depths of flavors that heirlooms offer, they are hooked. Taste is once again becoming a viable characteristic in variety selection for the home garden instead of only production quantity, uniformity, and disease resistance.

People are celebrating the fact that taste trumps volume. It’s the classic quantity vs. quality conundrum, with quality making a comeback.

About Stephen

Stephen Scott is co-owner of Terroir Seeds, a family owned and operated heirloom seed company that focuses on the "Cycle of Terroir"- from the soil, to the seed, to the food you eat; providing heirloom seeds, education and information for all phases of the cycle.

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37 Responses to What Are Heirloom Seeds?

  1. Gwen Holt January 21, 2012 at 8:04 am #

    This article was interesting and informative. Thank you, Gwen, better known as Welderwoman.

    • Stephen January 21, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

      Hope it helps, as there are a lot of folks that don’t quite understand the terms that are thrown around (rightly or wrongly) these days.

  2. Bert van Ruitenbeek October 14, 2012 at 6:25 am #

    Dear Stephen,

    Helpful informaiton indeed. Can you explain a bit more about “organic hybrid seeds”. Thanks.

    • Stephen October 14, 2012 at 9:25 am #

      Hello Bert, The term “organic” used in this sense simply means an approved, inspected method of growing or producing food, usually without petro-chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, etc. The term “organic” is not related to nor interchangeable with “heirloom” or “open-pollinated”, but many folks think that they are. You will hear such things as, “That melon is heirloom, so that means it’s organic.” Not true. Organic hybrid seed is simply a hybrid variety has been grown in an organic manner to produce seed. You still can’t save those seeds and have them grow true, regardless that the seed was grown organically or not.

  3. Nicole December 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

    How can you know if what you are purchasing is truly heirloom? There is no regulation on seed labeling I’m sure.

    • Stephen December 30, 2012 at 11:14 am #

      Hello Nicole, you are right – there are no labeling requirements for heirloom seeds. There isn’t even a strict definition of what “heirloom” seeds are! The generally accepted definition is a variety that has been saved and replanted for at least 50 years, though I prefer to use 70 years. That gets past the initial hybridizations that were started in the 1940s. One of the best ways is to read the stories about the variety, as all heirlooms have wonderful stories that always include a date that they were introduced to the seed trade or were first saved by a family. The second biggest thing is to get to know who you are buying seed from. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and make sure you understand the answers and that they make sense. Most seed companies are proud of their heirlooms, whether that is all that they offer, or is a part of their business. Seeds are unique in that you buy them on trust that they are as represented, and won’t find out until months later!

  4. missouri gardner January 24, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    Very helpful information, thank you for clearing these up for us!

    • Stephen January 24, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

      You are welcome! Seems like a basic subject, but the terms are misused a lot and many people simply don’t know the differences.

  5. Faizah January 27, 2013 at 12:20 am #

    Hello Stephen! Thank you for all this information! More people today are worried about eating GMO foods. I have a few questions: For a seed to be considered heirloom, it’s supposed to have been “planted, grown, saved and replanted” for decades or centuries? So, if that is the case, is it safe to say that HEIRLOOM SEEDS ARE 100% NON-GMO? Also, are they the TRUE and ORIGINAL mother nature’s seeds? Thank you very much for your attention!

    • Stephen January 29, 2013 at 11:53 am #

      Good questions, Faizah! Heirloom seeds have not been genetically modified, but that doesn’t mean that there might not be some level of GMO contamination in them. For instance, heirloom corn is getting more and more difficult to source, as most experienced corn growers are in the corn belt and are constantly have GMO corn pollen blowing over their property. Most of the quality heirloom seed companies are aware of this problem and take active measures to ensure that their seed is not contaminated. As with anything, you really need to get to know who is providing your seed and ask questions. Listen carefully to the answers and don’t hesitate to ask more questions, until you understand.

      Heirlooms are the “original” seed, but it must be recognized that they are not without human influence, as man has been selecting and breeding seeds for certain characteristics for 12,000 years or more. This selection and breeding has never involved outside genes from viruses, fish, frogs or other species as with GMOs.

      • Faizah February 22, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

        Thank you so much, Stephen!! All your answers are great and very helpful!

      • Stephen February 25, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

        Thanks, Faizah, we hope they help you in your gardening efforts!

      • Melissa May 11, 2013 at 1:53 pm #

        Stephen,
        This answers my questions. Thank you so much! I have looked long for this information. I will be ordering from Terrior Seeds in the future. I only wish I had found you sooner.
        Thank you, Melissa

      • Stephen May 14, 2013 at 9:32 am #

        Melissa, thanks for the warm comments! Enjoy the information, and we hope you are inspired to expand your garden.

  6. Brian February 13, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    Above, you stated that all heirloom seeds are open pollinated, meaning they will grow true to seed. But, based on what you said about GMO corn contaminating heirloom corn, it sounds as if this is not a guarantee. How can one be sure that their own heirloom plants will produce seeds that have not cross pollinated with some other variety? I have heirloom seeds I have purchased and I would like to be able to harvest seed from some mature plants that I grow this year. Once I do this, will I be able to grow the same thing next year?

    • Stephen February 13, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

      You raise excellent questions, Brian! In the article, I referred to general rules to help people understand what the differences between the different types of seeds are.

      In today’s world where measurable amounts of DDT are still being found in Antarctic wildlife while at the same time polar bears have measurable amounts of the genetically engineered Bt toxin in their blood in the Arctic, there are few hard and fast guarantees. The genie is out of the bottle; genetic contamination is very widespread and becoming increasingly difficult to control or keep track of. This only highlights the importance of knowing your food-source like never before. Your farmer, rancher and seed company are some of the most important people no one really knows, yet everyone depends on to keep them fed 3 times a day!

      The only real world, workable solution has two parts: the first is to know where your seed comes from – know the seed company and the second is experience in growing, isolating and saving seeds that have the best purity and vigor possible. You will have failures, setbacks and challenges in getting the experience and knowledge needed to grow and save the best seeds possible, those are the same challenges we face daily as an heirloom seed company, and our growers face them as well. With some experience, you’ll do well, but it does take some time. This is why it is so important to get started and get the experience now, and not wait until down the road when that skill becomes essential. Gardening is a skill set like any other that requires practice, patience and mindfulness to improve at, much like archery or firearms proficiency.

      Yes, by all means – harvest and save the mature seeds from your crops this year. Save seed from the best fruit, the juiciest and most flavorful. Do it on a small scale, maybe a couple of varieties to start with. Re-plant them next year and watch them closely. Save seeds from the best again – this is the process of selection, which can produce amazing results in a short time-frame of just a couple years. You’ll learn from close observation what works and what doesn’t and then progress to more and more successes!

  7. Mike February 20, 2013 at 6:49 pm #

    Thanks for all the information. I didn’t know what heirlooms seeds where and now I do and a whole lot more. I also liked how well you answer peoples questions. Thank you again.

    • Stephen February 20, 2013 at 7:07 pm #

      You are welcome Mike! Glad to help.

  8. Brad March 10, 2013 at 7:32 am #

    Stephen, Great article! Really helped clear up some questions I had. Also, thank you for the concise and easy to understand answers to our questions. Please keep it up.
    God bless!

    • Stephen March 10, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

      Thanks Brad, glad to have helped. Thanks also for the kind comments!

  9. Cathy May 5, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

    Thank you so much for explaining the differences. Very clear, very educational.

    • Stephen May 6, 2013 at 9:19 am #

      You are welcome Cathy, I hope this article helps clear up any confusion!

  10. Melia November 13, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    Hi Stephen,
    Thank you so much for all your information! I was wandering if you have any articles on how to save wheat seed? I have heard it’s difficult, but what like to hear what you have to say.

    Thank you,
    Melia

    • Stephen November 13, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

      Thanks for your kind words, Melia! I have written an article on the White Sonora Wheat, which includes a section on cleaning and threshing it. Let us know if you grow it and what you think of it!

  11. Chad January 5, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

    Hi Stephen,

    I’m looking to start a small organic garden and I’m looking for the “purest” seeds I can find. I’m still getting hung up on some terminology, however.

    Specifically, I’m still getting a bit confused by Organic USDA certified seeds vs. seeds that are not Organic USDA certified, but are instead non-GMO, non-hybrid, Heirloom seeds. I understand that organic is a method used to to grow crops, but when the term is applied to seeds, is it important?

    For example, I’m thinking of buying seeds from a company online that offers Heirloom, Non-GMO, Non-Hybrid, Open Pollinating Seeds. They have also made the Safe Seed Pledge and are not connected to Monsanto or any of their related companies. However, on their FAQ page it states in response to “Are all your seeds Organic?”: “All the seeds listed on the website are 100% Non-GMO. Some seeds are certified organic and will be labeled as such on the site.”

    So, does that mean that there seeds could have come from plants that were grown with non-organic methods even though the seeds are non-GMO, Heirloom, non-hybrid, open-pollinating seeds? Are these particular seeds safe to buy if I’m starting an organic garden?

    Your help is much appreciated

    • Stephen January 5, 2014 at 7:58 pm #

      Chad, first you need to define what you mean by “pure”. That is an ambiguous term and can mean as much as “natural” does today. Certified Organic only means that the food (or seed) was grown according to the National Organic Program (NOP) standards, nothing more, much like Kosher is a standard of food production. Both seed varieties can be heirloom, non-GMO, etc., etc. One is Certified Organic and the other isn’t. That’s the difference.

      You also must understand that heirloom and non-hybrid mean the exact same thing. All heirlooms are by definition non-hybrid. The same applies with open pollinated and non-hybrid, they mean the same thing.

      Answering the question of “Are all your seeds organic?” with “All seeds are 100% non-GMO” doesn’t answer the question at all. Yes, this could mean that the non-organic seeds were grown with questionable methods, but that is something that you would have to ask the company for further clarification on.

      It seems to me that your question really relates to seed quality. This is important to know, and it takes getting to know the company better to know what quality of seed they offer. We work hard to produce the highest quality seed possible, and we say this without bragging or hesitation, because we spend a lot of time on it. For more info, read our article, “The Tale of Two Seeds- Heirloom vs Hybrid Seed Production.” “Caretakers of the Seeds” will also show you more about how and why we are “Seed People”.

      It all comes down to this – do you trust this company? Do they explain what they are doing and why? Do they answer your questions, or leave you with more than you started with?

      Buy seeds from the company that you trust and feel has the best, highest quality seeds on the market. You won’t pay the lowest price, but you won’t feel let down either.

  12. Misilla January 19, 2014 at 7:40 am #

    Very informative! I was given some Dr. Baggett’s tomato seeds that were marked “heriloom” although now I know they aren’t…I have grown glass gem corn and scarlet runner beans…..they are such beautiful seeds! Thanks for posting this article! Misilla

    • Stephen January 21, 2014 at 1:25 pm #

      You are welcome Misilla! The scarlet runners are grown extensively by landscape architects for their beauty, but are delicious as well as huge pollinator attractants.

  13. Nada March 23, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

    Hi,

    I wanted to understand something about “organic vegetables”. If they are organic does that refer to the method of production only or does it also refer to the fact that the seed of the vegetable is not GMO? And with regard to your list of GMO crops. I have read that some of the crops that are mostly GMO also include red beets, canola and squash. Is that correct?

    Nada

    • Stephen March 26, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

      When a veggie is labeled “Certified Organic” that refers to the method of production – grown to the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. However, in the definition of what is eligible for organic certification, it specifically excludes GMO varieties. So I suppose that it is both!

      As far as the crops you ask about, they are not all crops that are mostly GMO – with the exception of canola. Sugar beets are the only beet crop that is GMO, and there are a very few squash that have been genetically modified, but aren’t readily available on the market when we last researched them. Most gardeners aren’t interested in sugar beets, but there are still non-GMO varieties available to grow.

  14. Cassie March 27, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    Very informative, exactly what I was looking for and clearly answered my questions (just a novice gardener). Thank you

    • Stephen March 30, 2014 at 11:39 am #

      Thanks Cassie! I hope that it helps you in choosing seeds for your garden this year!

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